As Aaron Wilbraham is starting for Crystal Palace in the Premier League today, here is something I wrote about the man after he left Norwich City.
There were raised eyebrows when he was signed by the club in January of 2011. Our promotion bid (or at least the playoff bid) was starting to gather steam, and people were seeing us as contenders. Grant Holt was kicking on and scaring defences, Simeon Jackson was working hard and the goals would come. Then we brought him in. Wilbraham’s signing seemed like a step backwards. Then I saw him play and it seemed like a colossal leap backwards. We lumped the ball at him. Tut tut tut.
Eventually the reason for his signing became clear. Grant Holt can’t play 90 minutes twice a week, no matter how much we may want him to. This, however, did not justify his signing. Wilbraham did not look like Holt; he was slighter and taller, like Grant if you stretched him on a medieval rack. Wilbraham did not scare defenders like Holt; there was no surprising turn of pace, no physicality, no guile, and no finesse. Wasted money, if you asked me. He scored against Leicester, a great game, but not one that I remember primarily for a Wilbraham goal. From what I remember, I thought it was a lucky first touch and a deflected shot. Maybe it was. It doesn’t matter anymore, that win was vital.
I thought he would go in the summer. He isn’t a Premier League striker, I would say to people. We need that part of the wage bill that he takes up, we need more quality. Around the start of February, Lambert said that he had ‘fended off’ interest for Wilbraham. I snorted. Let him go. Not good enough. He came on against Everton for his first Premier League appearance, at 1-0 up. I groaned. Paul Lambert had dug his own grave with that change, if Everton equalised then how were we going to get a goal through Alby? Then they equalised. Then I got angry. I confess this; I was wrong.
#Wilbrahamovic. The tide turned when he was given a nickname. In my understanding, the name came from Elliot Bennett and Bradley Johnson winding him up, trying to get it trending on Twitter. It seemed like a cruel joke, comparing a lower-league player like him with the class of Zlatan. It made him seem like a comedy figure, and this is telling. It is one of the reasons why he has been important; he is a good person to have around. You see him with the subs, warming up, laughing. You see him in training, smiling and joking. No-one seems to have a bad word to say about him from the dressing room; players like Alby have been key to the spirit of our squad. At each end-of-season dinner Paul Lambert has spoken about the importance of players like Matty Gill, and Michael Nelson, and Wilbrahamovic.
Then he started playing. No matter what you think of Steve Morison, there is no getting away from the fact that he had a bad run of form. In my opinion, Alby took full advantage of this, starting at Stoke. The game itself was dire, speaking to people as we were leaving the Britannia we rolled out all the old Stoke City clichés (‘Rugby game’ etc.), and the only bright point seemed to be Wilbraham’s performance. He controlled the ball well, he put himself about; all in all he changed the game. He gave us a point of attack, a point of calm, and led the fightback. He looked hungry, something which, at that point in time, Steve Morison didn’t.
At Fulham he scored his goal. He deserved it. Every second of that moment made me happy. It summed him up so perfectly in my head. It took a lot of hard work. He missed a couple of chances, difficult chances against a top goalkeeper admittedly, but this is the Premier League, and he isn’t good enough. Then it happened. Bit of hard work, get in the right position, and get a massive deflection. Wilbrahamovic scored a Premier League goal, and he deserved every second of that moment. His best game, however, was yet to come. Partnered up front with Grant Holt at Spurs, he looked first class. Those international centre halves didn’t know what had hit them; the pair of big lads up front gave them nightmares, and Alby was integral to one of the greatest performances of a great season, a colossal performance. For that day he was truly Wilbrahamovic – a Premier League striker – and we loved every minute of it.
When we look back on the all-time cult heroes of Norwich City FC, we won’t talk about Aaron Thomas Wilbraham. Twenty-eight appearances and two goals do not make for a legend of the club. He is not a classy player. When he runs he is all arms and legs, like he is fighting against the air around him. He is not athletic; he doesn’t look like a football player. He doesn’t nutmeg people (not on purpose anyway), he doesn’t have any tricks or even good ball control, and he rarely takes people on. He was never integral to promotion or survival. Despite all this, he was one of my players of a memorable season. He makes me happy. He looks like he enjoyed every second of playing for our club, he works his socks off every minute, and he never stops smiling. I have eaten my words. I love him. He has scored in every tier of the Football League, and I, for one, would never begrudge the man that.
Long live Wilbrahamovic. He will be missed.